The Bamberg Psalter was created around 1220/30 probably in Regensburg or in the Regensburg area. The book comprises 208 sheets of parchment, which are illuminated with miniatures and initials. The codex is one of several surviving manuscripts of illuminated psalters from the 13th century, a time when many ladies from the aristocracy ordered such a book for themselves. The Bamberg Psalter contains a calendar with feast days and dates of saints, the 150 psalms of King David as well as prayers and hymns. The book ends with a litany for All Saints' Day.
Bamberger Psalter (Einband), VorderseiteStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The Bamberg Psalter bears one of only 18 surviving horn bindings from the Middle Ages. A sheet of parchment, illuminated in bright colours, is covered with thin sheets of horn. Narrow strips of silver, fixed with little nails, frame the individual pictures. The panel in the centre features Jesus seated on a rainbow throne after
his ascension to Heaven. He is surrounded with a mandorla, an almond-shaped, halo-like frame that typically encircles Christ in traditional Christian Art. Jesus raises
his right hand in the gesture of the Hand of God (Manus Dei), a sign of
benediction, here given to the readers of the Psalter as they
open the book. His left hand clutches a book, which resembles the Psalter
itself. Enclosed in four circles that surround
Christ in a cross-like configuration are the symbols of the four Evangelists: The Eagle of John, the (Winged)
Ox of Luke, the Man (or Angel) of Matthew, and the (Winged) Lion of Mark
(clockwise from top center).
Two angels fill the upper two corners of the front cover. They are most likely seraphim or cherubim, angels of the highest order, because they each have three pairs of brightly-colored wings.
The archangels Michael (left) and Gabriel (right) guard the bottom two corners. Michael stabs a dragon at his foot with a lance. Gabriel raises an orb in his right hand and a lily scepter in his left.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.3v-4r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The Psalter starts with a calendar, comprising a page for each month of the year. Each page is decorated with two medaillons which show the typical agricultual work (above) and the star sign of the Zodiac (below). In the calendar, the days of remembrance of saints are noted, including some regional saints. Golden ink marks the most important feasts. The Roman numerals on the right-hand margin served for the calculation of lunar phases. This opening shows the months of June and July. June is represented by a farmer with a plough and the zodiac sign of the Scorpion, July is represented by a farmer harvesting the hay and the zodiac sign of the Lion.
Under the entry for the 5th of June, a note has been added about a crime which occured in the year 1245. It reads: "Gebehardus iunior comes de Hirzperch dormiens occiditur": Gebhard, Earl of Hirschberg was murdered in his sleep.
Three cycles of miniatures
The Bamberg Psalter contains 15 full-page miniatures on golden ground. The illustrations are divided into three groups with five scenes of the life of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Psalms of King David are divided into three groups of 50 Psalms - in analogy to the Trinity. After each group follows a full-page initial letter. Furthermore, large golden initial letters divide the Psalms into eight parts. Thus, the content of the Psalter is divided in ten parts altogether.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.7v-8r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The first two illustrations show the Annunciation to Mary (fol. 7v) as well as the Nativity of Christ (fol. 8r). Some parts of the picture extend beyond the frame, which gives the scene more expressiveness.
The archangel Gabriel is depicted with green and red wings and a multi-coloured tunic. As the messenger angel, he carries a lily-scepter in his left hand.
Gabriel extends two fingers of his right hand to indicate that he is announcing his message to Mary. She raises both arms as a sign of fear and astonishment at Gabriel's sudden appearance.
Mary is lying-in after childbirth. Following Byzantine artistic conventions, she rests on a raised bed or couch. Jesus is clearly the centre of the miniature. Joseph is glancing at the scene above,
where two shepherds are shown with the messenger angel telling them about the birth of Christ. The finger of the angel as well as the hand of one shepherd point to Jesus in the center. The shepherd on the far right gestures to both the infant and off-frame presumably to the heavens.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.8v-9r Bamberger Psalter, fol.8v-9rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The next opening shows the Adoration of the three Magi and the Presentation of Christ.
In both scenes the movement comes from the left. The Magi present their gifts to Mary and Jesus, and later, Mary presents her son Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem.
The infant Jesus is sitting on Mary's lap. His posture and clothes make him seem already grown-up when giving his benediction to the Magi. In his left hand, he grasps a scroll, an allusion to his prescient knowledge of being the Messiah.
Mary is holding Jesus as they meet Simeon, the High Priest who is to perform the purification rite. Simeon bows down to the baby Jesus, who again extends a hand in blessing. Simeon raises both hands upwards in reverence and acceptation of Jesus as the Messiah sent by God.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.9v-10r Bamberger Psalter, fol.9v-10rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The last illustration of the first group shows the Baptism of Christ (fol. 9v). Jesus is standing in front of John the Baptist in the River Jordan. This scene marks the end of the sequence of images about the childhood and youth of Christ.
On the facing page (fol. 10r), the first psalm is marked with a large inital. An ornately decorated B is the first letter of Psalm 1 in the Latin Vulgate version, thus opening the first of three groups of the 50 psalms. The verse reads: Beatus vir qui non abiit ("Blessed is the man that walketh not…").
Jesus is standing in the river Jordan, unclothed and covered by the water up to his chest. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends from the heavens, flies down from the parted clouds and perches on the cruciform halo around Christ’s head.
Inside upper lobe of the initial B, King David, the author of the Psalms, is seated playing the lyre.
The musicians in the lower lobe of the letter accompany David on the viol and a later form of the lyre.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.60v-61r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The second group of illustrations begins with the Wedding at Cana (fol. 60v), followed by the Christ's Temptation by Satan (fol. 61r).
The chronological order of the events is reversed, because in illustrated medieval books of gospels the temptation is normally shown on the Sunday of Lent.
Several events are shown simultaneously here. First, Mary tells Jesus that there is not enough wine for all guests. He then performs his first miracle, turning water into wine. Afterwards, the host (right) instructs his servants to fill water in six stone jugs. Another servant brings a golden vessel.
Jesus is fasting in the desert, while Satan bends down from the top of the page to tempt him.
Christ remains composed and rejects the temptation with his right hand. In his left hand, he clutches a book in order to demonstrate that he remains steadfast in his prayers and studious devotion to God.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.61v-62r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The next opening shows the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem (fol. 61v) and the Washing of the Feet of the Disciples (fol. 62r).
Christ enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey, followed by the apostle Peter. People lay down palm leaves and cloaks in his path, while two adolescents climb up a palm tree. Jesus extends his right hand in benediction.
Compared to Jesus and Peter, the other people depicted are drastically reduced in size.
Christ is featured in the centre of the miniature. He washes the feet of Peter, who is shown conventionally as an older man with greying hair and beard.
The other two younger, unidentifiable figures in the scene stand for the other disciples present at the last supper.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.62v-63r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The end of this circle of miniatures is the Arrest of Christ (fol. 62v). Two scenes are presented. The upper part shows the arrest of Jesus, the lower scene depicts Peter with a sword attacking Malchus.
The other page bears an initial showing the young David and his fight against the giant Goliath (fol. 63r).
Almost the entire frame is filled with figures, making this miniature one of the most action-packed in the Psalter.
Judas kisses Christ to indicate to the soldiers whom they are to arrest.
Judas and Jesus are the two figures closest to each other. Only one contour line separates the neck of Judas and the shoulder of Jesus.
Peter wields a sword and appears to raise it just before cutting off Malchus’s ear, according to the Gospel of John.
Malchus, the servant of a Jewish High Priest, cowers and retreats in fear to the bottom right-hand corner.
Goliath is standing in the centre of the initial. He is armed with a spear, sword and shield. The background is filled with multi-coloured tendrils.
A winged dragon forms the descender of the letter Q. Tendrils grow from his head, and his tail is rolled up.
In the right-hand corner of the initial, David is swinging his catapult, which extends beyond the frame.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.114v-115r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The last cycle of illuminations begins with the Crucifixion (fol. 115r).
This picture is an example of the iconographic type of a Four-Nail Crucifixion that was widespread before the Three-Nail iconography became more popular in the 13th century.
Next to the cross are the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. John is holding a book in his right hand that marks his status as an Evangelist who records the account of Jesus’s death in the Gospels. Mary is mourning on Jesus’ right.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.115v-116r (Montage)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
Two illuminations show the Resurrection of Christ (Easter) (fol. 115v) on the third day after his crucifixion and the Ascension to Heaven (fol. 116r) forty days after his resurrection. Jesus ascends to the Heavens to be seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Christ rises triumphantly from a sarcophagus whose slab has already been removed and makes the sign of benediction with his right hand. In his left hand, he carries a staff known as the “Resurrection Cross”, which is the shaft of a long, flowing banner, a symbol of his power and victory over death.
Christ steps on a sleeping soldier. The fearful watcher in the middle, who is hunched over and holds a sword in his lap, demonstrates the skills of the painter in portraying three variations of a seated position.
The upper part of the miniature takes place in heaven. Jesus is shown, still bearing his resurrection banner, in a mandorla, ascending into the clouds. He looks upwards in anticipation, with a strong expression unlike other contemporary depictions. Two angels lift him up to the sky.
In the lower part of the miniature, Mary and three of the disciples look up in awe. Mary and Peter raise their hands not only in fear and astonishment, but also in prayer. The disciple on the far right is holding a book which symbolizes the teaching, evangelizing, and preaching of the gospels that would follow this event.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.116v-117r Bamberger Psalter, fol.116v-117rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The last two miniatures of the Bamberg Psalter show the events on Pentecost (fol. 116v) and the Last Judgment (fol. 117r).
This miniature depicts the Virgin Mary in the middle of the circle of apostles.
The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends from the top line of the frame as the apostles and Mary raise their hands in prayer. No tongues of flame or rays of light are shown in the miniature, unlike the most other illustration of Pentecost.
Christ is raised on a throne in the centre of the miniature, spreading his hands out and holding a sword – a symbol of judgment – in his mouth. Two angels carry the Instruments of the passion - the crown of thorns and the whips used to flagellate Christ. The open bleeding wounds the crucifixion left on Christ’s body remind the viewer of the suffering that their sins have caused.
Beneath Christ, two two groups of souls rise from the dead. Their progressive resurrection is depicted by two open sarcophagi with two naked, newly-risen souls climbing out at the very bottom of the image, and the actual judgement happening right above.
In both groups, representatives of the ruling class and aristocracy as well as the clergy are shown.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.116v-117r (fol.117r Details)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
A group of saved souls on Christ’s right-hand side is led to heaven by an angel pointing upwards to Christ’s throne.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.116v-117r (fol.117r Details)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The other group, the damned souls, on Christ’s left-hand side is herded by another angel brandishing a flaming sword towards the right, where a demon armed with a chain awaits them in the fiery pits of hell.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.117v-118r Bamberger Psalter, fol.117v-118rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The last Initial D is entirely ornamental and shows no human figures. The gaps are filled with animals and dragons. The initial introduces the last group of Psalms.
In addition to the miniatures, the Bamberg Psalter contains some other elements of decoration.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.11r (Details)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
On this page, tendrils in green and ochre colours fill some lines where the text is shorter than the area of writing.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.32v-33r Bamberger Psalter, fol.32v-33rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
Here, each verse begins on a new line and is marked with a small golden initial.
Full-page ornamental initials in gold divide the psalms into eight parts for the liturgy on the individual days of the week (morning and evening service).
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen Bamberger Psalter, PsalminitialenStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
Each psalm begins with an initial painted in gold on a green/blue background and sometimes decorated with humans or animals or buildings.
This verse begins with a praying woman, possibly meant to represent the owner of the psalter?
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen fol.114rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
This initial is constructed from architectural elements and resembles a castle with walls and battlements. The legs of the letter M form two gateways.
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen fol.135vStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
Only some verses begin with initials with anthropomorphic elements, such as this knight in an golden armour with his lance. He forms the letter I.
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen fol.136vStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
Here, a musician is playing the horn. His instrument forms the ascender of the D.
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen fol.145vStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
A large bird, maybe a stork, forms the letter I.
Bamberger Psalter, Psalminitialen fol.180rStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
An anthropomorphic figure is holding the beam of the letter T.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.23r (Details)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
Sometimes the text has been damaged by holes, maybe from hot wax dropping on the book from a candle.
Bamberger Psalter, fol.185r (Details)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
The psalms are followed by a litany for All Saint's Day. In the 13th century, psalters were often expanded with further content. The litany can include regional saints, depending on the wishes of the client.
The layout of the back cover is identical to that on the front of the book. The mandorla in the centre is surrounded by four medaillons forming a cross with four figures in each corner. In the mandorla, the Virgin Mary is seated on a heavenly rainbow throne holding the infant Jesus. Thus, the picture resembles the image of the grown Jesus on the front cover. While the medaillons on the front cover show apostles, the ones on the back depict the heads of four female figures, possibly allegorical personifications of the four cardinal virtues: courage, moderation, justice and wisdom.
Bamberger Psalter (Einband), RückseiteStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
When the sheets of horn and silver fittings were taken off during a restoration of the binding in the 1970s, the colours could be seen much more clearly. When the miniatures are covered with horn, the colours appear darker.
Very few bindings with sheets of horn from the Middle Ages have been preserved. Only 18 such books are known today.
Bamberger Psalter (Einband), RückseiteStaatsbibliothek Bamberg
The corners of the back cover are inhabited by four prophets of the Old Testament, who had presaged the perpetual virginity of Mary and the coming of Christ as the Messiah. Above, Aaron is shown with the blooming staff on the left and Isaiah with a plant on the right.
Below, Ezekiel is depicted with the closed door in the form of a gate tower on the left, and Solomon with a sealed well on the right.
The Bamberg Psalter. The treasure of a noble lady.
Presented in an exhibition at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg,
25 March – 15 June 2019
A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 2019 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern.
Texts: Janice Cheon, Johannes Barnsteiner, Alexander Pelz and Bettina Wagner
Photos: Gerald Raab